The Last Command (1928, Josef von Sternberg)

!!! A+ FILM !!!

Josef von Sternberg’s touchstone masterpiece The Last Command is built on a sort of meta-narrative; because it is very much a movie about moviemaking, specifically about Hollywood moviemaking, it sometimes seems — like another, much later Paramount production, Sunset Blvd. — to be a commentary upon itself. It follows a disgraced former Russian general, Sergius Alexander (Emil Jannings), cousin of the Czar, who’s now pinching pennies as a (before the term existed) PTSD-suffering extra in Los Angeles. When the constant shaking of his head is questioned by another actor, we flash back and learn of Alexander’s glory days just before the Revolution — as an abusive, sexist, barking commander with the tiniest streak of a conscience, flaunting furs and fine meals and generally building a war from a safe distance. We quickly learn that the Hollywood director coyly employing Alexander, Leo Andreyev (a young, luminously handsome William Powell), once toiled under him as a prisoner while working as a secretly revolutionary actor in Russia; the great general even wooed a fellow radical, Natalie Dabrova (Evelyn Brent), seemingly just to exercise his skill at manipulation.

But now Alexander is a shadow of a man; he can scarcely speak and is obsequious and slight when he does so. The transformation wasn’t gradual — when the Bolsheviks stripped him of his status, he was cleverly rescued by Dabrova in a ruse to make it appear that she was only prolonging his agony rather than having him immediately killed, then witnessed her violent death from a train derailment on a bridge. Andreyev now seeks to continue the humiliation through his direction of a scene that requires the former ruthless overlord to break out the whip and sing the praises of the old Russia once again. And suddenly, a spark reappears and the line between scene and reality, past and future, melt away to the shock of even the director, who gets more of a performance than he bargained for — indeed, the ultimate, sacrificial performance — and then giddily, deviously or maybe compassionately allows the image to be complete for the old timer. “Yes, we won.”

The symmetry of The Last Command‘s script is truly ingenious in both its simplicity and its probing self-reflexiveness. Looked upon broadly, it’s a straightforward satire about how power corrupts; as soon as the revolutionaries gain a foothold over their former oppressors, they quickly take on not just the luxury of owning all but of causing agony. In the space of just a few minutes we watch a frail, frightened man reduced from a bloodthirsty tyrant, and then back again. We feel catharsis in the thought of revenge but are finally confronted, with Renoir-like directness, with the sad fact that even the most outwardly rotten excuse for a human being is in many respects a product of his circumstances. That goes double for Natalie Dabrova; it’s easy enough to identify with her ideology but easier yet to comprehend her inability to entirely live up to it — she can’t kill a person when she has the chance no matter how she loathes the things he believes, she can’t overlook someone’s humanity even in the most dismal moments, and ultimately she can’t wholly denounce a lifestyle contemptible to her when she witnesses the full dimension of its participants. But nor can she turn her back on what she knows to be justice.

Thus, if Sergius Alexander is the classic anti-hero despite his occasional pangs of regret and understanding, it’s Natalie whose complexity really drives this story — but rather than expose any limit in Alexander’s characterization, it only enhances it. Natalie was already a moral and complicated human before our story began, but we watch Alexander develop anxieities about his own past in real-time. His physical ailment, the eternal shaking of the head, manifests his internal change. The equally complex Andreyev hides a need for vegeance underneath his earnestness until the final scene of the film, even as the only power he wields is that of a film director — which, in our present context, is the most serious power of all. Andreyev’s demeanor changes when he watches the complete sentimental conviction of Sergius’ belief in what he once thought was “the good fight”; however wrongheaded, however artificially learned, that kind of purity is touching — and Andreyev’s realization that his own soul loses nothing by providing his former enemy with one last moment of power speaks well of him, speaks well of the human reaction against blanket, quick judgment.

The film’s politics are necessarily ambiguous; at times it covers the pre-Bolshevik unrest with sharp bits of Eisenstein-like propaganda, but it’s as quick to underline the naivete of some in the revolutionary cause as it is to prod the excesses and murderous waste of the ruling class. Any message within The Last Command — a cutting, quick, witty production all in all — is subverted by Von Sternberg’s desire for play: he wants us to contemplate the surrealism when he is directing a director directing a performance by a former real-life general (but really an actor) who once censured and mocked his director’s work back in Russia, as an actor. It’s not merely that Alexander’s understanding of reality and fantasy collide in his last moments: the same goes for us in the audience. As Alexander passes out for the last time, emotion rules even over cinema; his plight becomes us.

Structured carefully into three distinct parts — a beginning and end in the “present” Hollywood, a lengthy middle in 1917 Russia — The Last Command is rife with more cris-crossing mirror images than can be outlined, and you can exhaust yourself cataloging all the ways in which it offers oblique commentary about war, poverty, power, loyalty and honor (however misplaced), and especially cinema. Almost everything relates somehow to something else somewhere else: divided loyalties, betrayals, acts of kindness, acts of brutality all seem to collide into some mass of confused humanity. Not all of the bleeding between image and life is intentional; Emil Jannings’ own life would eventually become an odd companion to the story he tells here. Despite (deservedly) winning the first Academy Award for Best Actor for this film and Victor Fleming’s (lamentably lost) The Way of All Flesh, his career took a nosedive with the rise of the talkie and he returned to Germany, where he got swept under the Nazi wing and became a participant in Goebbels’ bizarre film industry during the war; he’d never return to Hollywood. For all his apparent political foolishness, Jannings’ legacy on film is rich beyond imagination for this role alone, even as he’s flanked by two equally magnificent, underplayed performances by Brent and Powell; all three destroy every stereotype about silent film acting, at any rate.

Perhaps nothing resonates about this astonishing film as much as the bravura genius of Sternberg and photographer Bert Glennon’s deliriously cloudy visual sense; the compositions are rousing and accomplished, the editing extraordinary, the aesthetics on the whole so nearly flawless as to render all but invisible their age at this point — and to make many modern films look cheap and facile. As with the director’s earlier Underworld, it takes only a rudimentary knowledge of cinema history to note how many subsequent films have referred back to this one; just to start with, let’s mention Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil, the conclusion of which is a searing echo of Andreyev’s last line, the one about Alexander being a great man despite everything. Or virtually any film about filmmaking itself; this wasn’t the first, but it rings out across the years like few others. But the difference between this and Underworld, wonderful as that movie is, is that the brilliantly barbed, fascinating premise of The Last Command hasn’t aged even slightly — even now, the notion of a former underling directing a hated, now powerless former authority figure in a motion picture more or less playing himself teems with possibility and excitement. But it’s highly improbable that anyone could ever explore it as completely, succintly and gorgeously as Sternberg did almost ninety years ago.

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